Select Committee on Mersey Tunnels Bills Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 740-759)

MR CHARLES GEORGE QC and MISS JOANNA CLAYTON.

BIRCHAM DYSON BELL and MR JOHN McGOLDRICK examined

740. My Lords, I leave it this way: that those I represent I are a public body.They are not a private individual who has come along seeking the tolling power; they are a public body. They owe duties in law, they owe duties, financial, accounting duties which are enforced by the District Auditor. Were they to spend any toll money on other purposes for ulterior motives or for functions which fell beyond the scope of the Passenger Transport Authority or unreasonably and in breach of their fiduciary duties, they would be answerable, so they operate within a tight area quite unlike a private body. They are a statutory body acting within their statutory duties and we would invite your Lordships to leave the clause as it stands. It has reached that form as a result of much negotiation. When the Bill started out, there were a whole number of other clauses. They have been, as it were, concertinaed into (e) with the very helpful guidance of the Counsel to the Speaker in the other place. Furthermore, the present format has commended itself to the Secretary of State and your Lordships have seen his report. He is satisfied with the Bill as it stands. It seems to us that to reopen this matter at this stage, when I do not believe it is a sensible part of the Petition against us in any way, it is a matter which is adverted to, not a central matter, would, we believe, be undesirable. At the end of the day, it must be a matter for your Lordships, but my clear instructions are that we believe there would be no abuse at all and much to be said for leaving that provision as it stands today. So far as fairness is concerned, your Lordships are in the position to judge what is fair here. We simply commend to your Lordships this Bill as a fairly modest attempt to bring commonsense to these tunnels and to ensure that some capacity remains for longer than would otherwise be the case.

741. Unless there is anything else on which I can assist your Lordships, that is all I have to say.

742. CHAIRMAN: I have one question but I will just ask my colleagues if they have any questions for Mr McGoldrick or for counsel.

743. MR McGOLDRICK: I do not know if I am permitted, but can I clarify the point on the 1980 Act and the one person?

744. CHAIRMAN: If it is just on that issue, yes.

745. MR McGOLDRICK: Yes, it is just on that. I think this is a mistake that I have made myself a year ago in reading it. The County of Merseyside Act 1980, page 121, Revision of tolls 92, starts off with the procedure that the County Council, which is now Merseytravel, would go through if they wish to have a toll increase and basically that is dealt with in paragraphs (1) to (7) and in paragraph (6) which says:

746. "Before confirming the order, with or without modifications, the Minister shall, if requested to do so by the county council, or if any person or body which appears to the Minister to be sufficiently representative of persons who have a substantial interest in the use of the tunnel to which the order apples has objected to the order…"

747. So, that is the basic provision. That is what the Department of Transport are quoting in their letter.

748. You then have paragraphs 8 onwards and basically they relate to a situation which has never happened which is that not only can the county or Merseytravel ask for revision of the order but basically we could ask the minister for revision of the order under paragraph 8(a) and, if we do so, somebody other than the county or Merseytravel, then the subsection to which Mr George refers comes into play, which is that if there is only one objection to what we requested, the minister can hold an inquiry but if it is the county or Merseytravel that have applied for the order, then it is subparagraph (6) that applies ---

749. CHAIRMAN: I do not think that we want to get too hung on this. It is a pretty narrow point. It is not germane in the overall scheme of things. Mr George, unless you are desperately tempted, can we leave this point?

750. MR GEORGE: I am not. I am going to say that Mr McGoldrick may have a point. It does not matter. It is a cumbrous procedure but if a group of people, particularly for instance a body here, this group, were sufficient to compel, even if they were a small group, an inquiry to be held, that would be enough, so I do not take the matter any further. It may be it depends on the status of the application that it is sufficient, but it is a very cumbrous procedure which involves long delays as evidenced by what happened on this particular proposal.

751. CHAIRMAN: Mr George, I said that I had one question for you. You may or may not want to refer to your witnesses on this. There has been frequent reference and comparisons made with both the Severn crossing and the Dartford crossing. We heard Mr Kendall say he thought that was irrelevant, that is the word he used about Dartford. Leaving that on one side, can you tell the Committee purely factually firstly until such time as the Dartford toll, dare I say, is renewed - that is not a correct word but we know what it means - were the moneys received from the toll for the Dartford tunnels and bridge used for any other purposes other than to repay the debt? My question is similar for the new Severn Bridge except it is still extant whereas the Dartford crossing has now moved on a bit.

752. MR GEORGE: I think I can answer. So far as Dartford, the bridge of course was built, as I recollect it, under a PFI-type concession. Therefore, the point which Lord Bradshaw was making this morning comes in and one has to remember that an element was going on the profit margin of the PFI element. So, if I feed that in, I think thereafter the answer is that the breakthrough was the Transport Act 2000 with the decision that, instead of just passing legislation to reduce the numbers of vehicles and traffic reduction legislation which has not been very effective, one should have new positive measures which would involve payments by motorists which should be spent on public transport purposes.

753. CHAIRMAN: I am sorry, that was not my question. My question was, before the passing of that Act, what were the toll moneys used for?

754. MR GEORGE: My Lord, I hope I had acknowledged that. Until the passing of that Act, the tolls had only been used for operations, refurbishment, paying off of the debt. Then I was coming on to say that Parliament passes legislation in 2000 and that legislation is then the source of the order made in respect of Dartford, to which I referred your Lordships, which was specifically made under that Act and, as the Secretary of State pointed out in his report on this Bill, he felt that the 2000 Act had created the parliamentary precedent which justified Merseytravel in applying a similar procedure here in Merseytravel. I hope that makes it clear. Your Lordship is entirely right. Up to 2000, there is no precedent for it. The 2000 Act comes and, following the 2000 Act, one has the same thing being done under a different lot of legislation in Scotland under what is I think is the Scottish Transport Act 2000, its equivalent, so that both north and south of the border, you have this concept that some motorists may be charged sums which are hypothecated to public transport. That is new from 2000 and I respectfully suggest that is going to be the pattern for the future. Plainly, it is the pattern which the Secretary of State is likely to follow under his powers under the 2000 Act but we of course are not under that Act. The Scottish Act, I am informed, is the Transport (Scotland) Act 2001 which is in rather similar terms to the 2000 Act.

755. CHAIRMAN: Mr George, you may not know the answer to this question but to what extent was the debt on the Dartford bridge expunged by the year 2000?

756. MR GEORGE: It actually came to an end in 2000. It was a debt that was nearing its end. It came to an end in 2002 and your Lordships have the consultation document because the Department was aware that they were doing something controversial in the case of Dartford when they put forward the proposal to have the hypothecation and not to reduce the toll and that was at the moment the concession had ended and the concession has ended because the concessionaire had got his money back effectively. He built the bridge, he got his money back and that was the position which many people, north and south, expected that tolls would go and there were those complaints of broken promises.

757. CHAIRMAN: I do not want to pursue this too long but what is the position regarding the Severn bridge?

758. MR GEORGE: So far as the Severn bridge, at present it is out on its concession. That is the one that is to run and we were given by Mr McGoldrick how much longer it has this morning. I think it was about 2012/13.

759. CHAIRMAN: The point of my question is, to what extent, if at all, is the 2000 Act biting regarding the Severn bridge?


 
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